Oh Mudstacle readers, it's your lucky day! We love getting guest writers on board, but few have been more exciting than the BMF Race Team's number one heartthrob, Ross Macdonald. As a champion obstacle racer and triathlete extraordinaire, he was the perfect guy to sample the rising craze of "SwimRun" events. Here are his experience of the recent Lake District event, along with lots of tips for anyone wanting to give one a try...
The Swedes have already given us the Toughest Race series, IKEA and beautiful women. Now, to top it all off, they have also given us SwimRun. A new favourite of mines!
SwimRun started in Sweden when some locals in Utö challenged each other to a race in the Stockholm archipelago. Within a few years an official event had been created, called ‘Ö till ö’, which, translated to English, means ‘island to island’.
SwimRun is defined as an event where the goal is to go from a starting point to a finish point through a course with at least two swim and two run sections. Traditional SwimRun is completed as a pair, for safety reasons, where you should at no time be more than 10 metres from your partner. However, the Italian’s have decided to allow individual competitions as well and I am sure individual racing will also become more widespread.
Along with OCR and triathlon, I have taken part in many Aquathlons too. An Aquathlon is a simple pool swim of around 600 metres followed by what is normally a 5 km road run. SwimRun is an Aquathlon on steroids. Lots and lots of really strong steroids!
In my quest to try as many new events as possible I signed the British Military Fitness Race Team up for the Breca SwimRun in the Lake District. My race team partner, Rob Smyth (who works for BMF), was also a sub-10 hour Ironman triathlete, so we were fairly confident that we would do well at the event. What’s more, we had Thomas Blanc as our team manager for the day. We hardly saw Thomas as he disappeared to do handstands in some waterfall or something... some teammate.
The Breca SwimRun started and finished in Buttermere. The location was incredible and makes me even more jealous that Mr James Appleton lives in nearby Keswick and has this as his playground.
The course involved:
- 600 metre run
- 600 metre swim
- 2 km run
- 500 metre swim
- 7 km run
- 1 km swim
- 8 km run
- 800 metre swim
- 2 km run
- 500 metre swim
- 2 km run
- 1 km swim
- 8 km run
- 600 metre swim
- 8 km run
So, a total of 6 km of swimming and 38 km of running lay ahead of us. Many of the running sections had decent climbs in them and were mainly off-road, the swims were mainly flat, thankfully!
To say Rob and I were under prepared is an understatement. We are both very relaxed when it comes to racing and we left everything to the last minute. We even failed to find time to train together prior to the event. We hadn't even organised our kit prior to the morning of the race.
The SwimRun mandatory kit list includes the following:
- small first-aid kit
Special SwimRun wetsuits are now available which are cut at the knee and allow more freedom of movement throughout. On most of the run sections you keep your wetsuit on and the majority of participants also keep their running shoes on throughout the event. The running shoes creates drag in the water and so it is better to take kicking out of the equation all-together, so for this reason, you are allowed to use a pool-buoy.
The pool-buoy adds buoyancy and ensures your legs stay high in the water. The pool-buoy is modified with the addition of elastic to keep it in place in the water as well as on the run.
To help your arms, which are now doing all of the work in the water, you are allowed to use hand paddles. This puts a lot of strain on your shoulders, so you should definitely train with them for a couple of months before racing with them.
You are allowed to use flippers if you want, but this would then require taking your shoes off a number of times, as well as being something else to have to carry. You do also have the option of using a tow-float, which is dragged behind you in the water and keeps everything dry. Rob and I decided against this, as well as deciding against the permissible tow-rope, which some teams used as a way of balancing out individuals in the swim and on the running segments. Other items needed are a swim hat, goggles and enough nutrition to get you between any feed stations.
Rob and I were very relaxed on the start line, as we chatted with Jon Albon and Mark Buller, who had also paired up. So relaxed in fact that we thought we were at the front but were actually lined up at the back as we were set-off. Although this gave some teams a lead on us as, and we spent time working our way through the field, we knew we had six hours of racing ahead and that this wouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things.
On the first swim I lost Rob. I hoped he was within 10 metres of me but there were a lot of bodies. I stopped and had a look at the fish swimming in the crystal clear water below me. Thankfully he appeared next to me, having already ditched his hand-paddles. By the second run we had moved into fourth place- a position we kept until we got lost for three minutes on the first longer run segments. The map and compass we were carrying didn’t help and so orienteering is not on my to-do list.
We were slower than some teams on the swim sections but we were easily making up the time lost on the run sections. The swims were difficult and despite being in a lake, it was incredible how the wind could whip up a strong swell and create waves against you. Still, having the mountains on either side of you did at least make the swims scenic. However, I lost my goggles on the second run and so I had my eyes closed for most of my time in the water.
By the final long-run we were comfortably in third place but were several minutes behind the German pair sitting in second. Fortunately, they were really struggling and we had paced this well so we passed them up the very steep two kilometre climb which was early on in this run segment. This climb was too steep to run up. It was also at this point that Rob started complaining of pain in his Achilles and foot. I wanted second place and so gave him little sympathy- urging him to ignore the pain and push on through what was now gale-force wind and rain.
I felt bad the following day when he was diagnosed with a broken tibia and would be in a cast for three weeks.
We were both really chuffed with second place. They don't call me Silver for nothing! I enjoyed almost every minute of it and although there are plenty of other 'up and coming' events, such as SUPBikeRun, which I want to try, there is something special about SwimRun that I think has really got me hooked. It was also nice to beat Jon for once.
Given that SwimRun is still relatively new it is, like OCR, still establishing itself and seems fairly relaxed and unregulated. What is great is that, also like OCR, the races lack standardisation- so don’t expect to see it in the Olympics anytime soon! These are all positives for me though as it enables organisers to decide on the location, distances and even the rules without too much external influence. Providing they have done a half-decent health and safety check of the event, I am happy.
Now for some top tips.
- There is very little to be nervous about for SwimRun events, all swim sections are monitored from land as well as from the water, by people in kayaks.
- Training prior to the event is really important, the best location for training would be a lake with good running trails close by and with someone there with you.
- The transition to and from swim and run should be practised for several reasons, firstly, going from swimming to running very quickly can give you ‘jelly legs’. This is the feeling when you know you are running, but you can’t really feel your legs moving and it feels like you are going nowhere. Secondly, you should get used to taking your hand paddles on and off, taking your wetsuit down (for the longer run sections) and storing your equipment. At Breca, I stuffed all of my equipment into my wetsuit whilst running and it was only at the next swim that I realised I had lost my goggles.
- Finally, running with wet shoes should be practised. They will drain, but for the first few hundred metres any shoe, no matter what the brand, will be heavier than normal.
- It is also worth putting Vaseline everywhere before you start. Everywhere!
Lets talk gear:
- I opted for normal trail running shoes with ankle socks, at the finish line it was clear that wearing socks was actually the better option, despite my reservations about it increasing the chances of getting blisters.
- I found the hand paddles were a good option and swimming with them in training increases shoulder strength - so there are advantages there in cross-training for OCR and other events.
- The purchase of a SwimRun specific wetsuit was worth it as it meant I had a zipper on the front as well as on the rear, this meant I could pull it down easily on the running sections. I opted for the HUUB Amphibia.
- Get the sizing correct for the wetsuit too, mines was slightly too tight around the crotch area and this meant I was really struggling to wee for the entire six-hours.
In summary, I would really recommend trying a SwimRun event. It is a long day of racing but if you are competing alongside a good friend then you will have a lot of fun. You will both have low moments and this is when your partner can really motivate you and keep your spirits high. Rob and I covered a lot of topics whilst racing- from Boris and Trump, to wondering where the hell Thomas was!? I actually hope that this sport maintains its popularity as a team sport rather than am individual sport. Just find a partner who you are fairly evenly matched with in both disciplines (unlike Jon and Mark).
I actually hope that this sport maintains its popularity as a team sport rather than am individual sport. Just find a partner who you are fairly evenly matched with in both disciplines (unlike Jon and Mark).
There are plenty of SwimRun events across Europe for you to try. Qualifying for the Otillo Championships should be the aim!
- Breca SwimRun Jersey, 24th September 2016, details here
- Swim Run UK, Snowdonia, 6th August 2016, details here
- AquaticRunner, Italy, 10th September 2016, details here
- Otillo SwimRun 1000 Lakes, Germany, 23rd October 2016, details here
Ross competes in OCR, triathlon and whatever else he likes the look of for the British Military Fitness Race Team and is a Race Host for Race Force Ltd.